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January 2nd, 2009

Recent Comets Caused Extinctions?

The NY Times ran a story yesterday, “ Diamonds Linked to Quick Cooling Eons Ago ”

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/02/science/02impact.html?_r=1

Quoting the rss blurb, “Researchers say that an abrupt cooling of the Earth about 12,900 years ago may have been caused by one or more meteors that slammed into North America.”

This stuff is in my field, so naturally I turned to read the article. My first question was not about their theory or their data -- the NY Times is not going to carry enough of either for me to make any kind of judgement. Instead, I asked, “Who are these guys?”

The first red flag was that I had never heard of them. The second red flag was that the lead spokesperson is a retired geologist who was doing this as a hobby.

The reporter did talk to two people I had heard of. One, an expert whom I trust, pretty effectively trashed the theory. The other, a good guy who was working a bit outside his field of expertise (as I would have been, if I had been asked) said he didn’t necessarily believe it, but that the data were worth putting out in any event to stimulate discussion. Not what one would call a roaring endorsement.

Of course, the real red flag was that the article was published during the Christmas holidays. Silly season time. The work on which is was based was published in Science, which on the surface of things has a very high reputation but which, in fact, often publishes highly speculative science that probably isn’t true but would be really exciting if it were.

From all that, I give it about a 10% chance of actually being a viable theory. Not crackpot; not really worthy of the attention it got, either.

An interesting case study of how science gets done, and gets reported.

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